Abstract: Although the involvement of the group is not proven, it appears increasingly likely the October 31 downing of a Russian aircraft over Egypt’s Sinai was the result of a bomb placed on board by Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State that claimed the attack. This article traces the origins of the group and what is known about its leadership, and argues the attack may prove counter-productive to the group. The decision to please the Islamic State by prioritizing an international target may create a backlash against the group because so many Egyptians work in tourism. Any backlash would provide an opportunity for Egyptian security services to degrade the group.
The October 31 crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 in Egypt has focused global attention on the threat posed by the Islamic State’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula, which claimed responsibility. Wilayat Sinai emerged only recently, formally pledging bay`a (allegiance) to the Islamic State on November 10, 2014. Islamist militancy based in the Sinai Peninsula, however, has a long history.
In 2004, Tawhid wal Jihad, a predecessor group to Wilayat Sinai, targeted tourists with bombings in the South Sinai resort towns of Taba and Nuweiba. One of the motivations appears to have been pay back for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. President Hosni Mubarak’s regime clamped down harshly on the militancy in the Sinai, where tourism is a major economic driver. But the perceived impunity and abuses by the Interior Ministry during that campaign were part of the recipe that resulted in the 2011 uprising. In the aftermath there has been a post-revolutionary consolidation in the Sinai by a new generation of Islamist militants, who are again turning their sights on tourists and other international interests.
Wilayat Sinai’s initial statement made no mention of Egypt or of Moscow’s policies toward that country. Instead, the attack was claimed solely as retaliation for Russian military strikes in Syria, and the group threatened that Russian civilians would not be safe anywhere as long as Russia continued its military campaign in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and against the Islamic State. The mounting evidence of a terrorist plot behind the Metrojet crash shows that Wilayat Sinai is serious in its threats to take on the Islamic State’s enemies.
The conditions in the Sinai have long been ripe for militant activity. The absence of law enforcement throughout Egypt after the January 2011 uprising first allowed remaining and returning followers of Tawhid wal Jihad and other likeminded individuals and groups to consolidate their operations. Militants also benefited greatly from the mass jailbreaks that occurred the same month. Many hardened jihadis with records dating back to Egypt’s counterterrorism confrontations of the 1980s and 1990s were joined by foreign and foreign-trained militants. Later waves of detainee releases also brought new recruits.
Regional events allowed the militants to obtain weapons. The revolution in Libya flooded local arms markets. The flow of weapons from Libya helped solidify connections between Sinai’s criminal elements and Hamas, which rules Gaza. According to Israeli and Egyptian intelligence assessments, Hamas has provided weapons to militants in Sinai for mutually beneficial operations.
Wilayat Sinai directly identifies itself as a successor organization of Tawhid wal Jihad, which had strong connections to several radical groups. Tawhid wal Jihad had links with the Iraq-based group of the same name founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which developed into the Islamic State. In the Sinai, the ideological links from Tawhid wal Jihad passed from one of its founders, Khaled Mosaid, through a student, Tawfiq Mohamed Freij. In 2012, Freij became the founding leader of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (“Supporters of Jerusalem,” ABM), which in late 2014 changed its name to Wilayat Sinai.
ABM also had links to al-Qa`ida before it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2014. According to the U.S. Department of State, Ramzi Mawafi, an Egyptian al-Qa`ida explosives expert and personal doctor to Usama bin Ladin, fled to Sinai after mass prison breaks in the wake of the Egyptian revolution. As of October 2014, Mawafi was still “believed to be in the Sinai Peninsula coordinating among militant groups and helping to arrange money and weapons to support violent extremist activity.”
Another al-Qa`ida-linked militant with likely ties to ABM was Muhammad Jamal, who was released from prison by the Egyptian military government in 2011. He used his connections with al-Qa`ida, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, to establish training camps in Sinai, western Egypt, and Libya. Jamal, who operated publicly, was rearrested in Egypt after U.S. intelligence emerged showing that his network was involved in the September 2012 Benghazi attacks in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans died.
Consolidation and Adaptation
ABM demonstrated a clear capacity to evolve and adapt. In the fast changing environment during and after the collapse of the Mubarak regime, ABM was able to consolidate itself as the main group operating openly in Sinai. It developed a consortium-like structure in which smaller organizations became “cells” under ABM’s banner. Unclaimed attacks took place in North Sinai, but it was the rare exception for any group other than ABM to claim credit.
Another adapdation took place in ABM’s targeting. From February 2011—before the group even started to use the name Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—until mid-2013, ABM struck at Israeli interests and the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. It concentrated on cross-border raids and attacks, and sabotage of Egypt’s gas pipelines to Israel and Jordan. Following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Egyptian military renewed its counterterrorism campaign in North Sinai. The Sinai offensive, coupled with a perceived crackdown on Muslims following the August breakup of pro-Morsi sit-ins, turned ABM’s focus to attacking Egyptian military and police forces in Sinai and across the Suez Canal in “mainland” Egypt.
Between September 2013 and January 2014, ABM carried out a number of high-profile attacks outside North Sinai, included the attempted assassination of the Interior Minister in Cairo. Many of the Sinai-mainland militant links appear to have been disrupted by good Egyptian police work. Others may have been broken by ABM’s decision to affiliate with the Islamic State. And there was likely also a decision by Wilayat Sinai to focus on consolidation, limiting “external” (i.e., outside North Sinai) operations. During Wilayat Sinai’s first year of existence, the group only claimed five attacks outside North Sinai even as its operations in North Sinai grew exponentially in frequency, size, and complexity.
Strength through Mystery
One of ABM’s operational advantages was its cellular structure and secrecy. Wilayat Sinai has for the most part maintained this approach, except in large-scale attacks, such as the July 1 siege of the North Sinai city of Sheikh Zuweid. The group’s nature means that little definitive information exists about Wilayat Sinai’s leadership, and the government has been embarrassed by the reappearance of key militants it claimed to have been killed, such as Shadi al-Menai.
Al-Menai does appear to be important in ABM. He is young, less than 30 years old, and is from the Sawarka tribe based in northeast Sinai, which has provided ABM with solid Bedouin credentials since its founding. Al-Menai reportedly connected with Tawhid wal Jihad in prison while serving a sentence for human trafficking. Egyptian sources regularly blamed the military’s inability to capture or kill al-Menai—and another ABM/Wilayat Sinai leader from Tawhid wal Jihad, Kamal Alam—on his ability to escape into Gaza via tunnels. Indeed, there has been no “proof of life” for al-Menai since his claimed death in 2014, but Egyptian and Israeli sources assert he is in Gaza, perhaps under the protection of Hamas, but at least with the group’s knowledge. On November 1, 2015, Wilayat Sinai released a short video of what appeared to be al-Menai threatening Israel, though there has been no confirmation of the obscured figure’s identity.
The best known representative of Wilayat Sinai is a militant known as Abu Usama al-Masri, though the details are still blurry. Despite being a “person of interest” in the Metrojet bombing, little is known for certain about al-Masri, including his real identity or rank within the organization. One theory from Egypt’s National Security Agency is that al-Masri’s real name is Mohamed Ahmed Ali and that he is from North Sinai’s capital al-Arish. However, linguistic analysis suggests al-Masri may not be from the Sinai. Other sources suggest that al-Masri is Abdel Moneim Nofal, a January 2011 prison escapee who led Egyptian militants in the 1980s, but Nofal has since been re-arrested. Al-Masri is believed to be the main link between the Islamic State and Wilayat Sinai. According to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, al-Masri was one of the ABM leaders who traveled to Syria in the fall of 2014 to arrange the new relationship. Beginning in January 2014, al-Masri began encouraging victory for the Islamic State in his public statements. In a May 2015 video, with Kamal Alam by his side, al-Masri renewed the Sinai group’s November 2014 pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State.
Notwithstanding his relatively high profile, it is unclear if Abu Usama al-Masri is Wilayat Sinai’s leader. The group has never claimed him as leader and, as Nelly Lahoud previously noted, al-Masri referenced another leader in his 2014 Eid al-Fitr address. One questionable report from the Gulf claims Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appointed al-Masri head of Wilayat Sinai—and that perhaps he is not even based in Egypt. Other Egyptian reports, citing an anonymous security source in North Sinai, claim al-Masri is merely Wilayat Sinai’s spokesman.
Indeed, in May 2015 what is probably the same anonymous source “revealed” the identities of Wilayat Sinai’s leaders to Egyptian and Palestinian news outlets. In addition to telling at least one media organization that al-Masri practices witchcraft, the source claimed the head of Wilayat Sinai was identified as Sulayman Dahbish Abu Malhus. In those reports, Dahbish is stated to be 33 years old, using the noms de guerre Abu Omar and Abu al-Zubeir, and hiding out in the villages of North Sinai’s Sheikh Zuweid. However, no further information was provided then, nor has his name been mentioned since.
Wilayat Sinai likely has only a few hundred active fighters, but the group has managed to impede road travel with impunity using improved explosive devices (IEDs), carry out large-scale military raids, and use heavy weapons such as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) and anti-tank missiles. And despite taking significant hits from the Egyptian armed forces, it has managed to rebound. It has also shown remarkable tactical flexibility being able to produce IEDs and vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs) with a range of explosives (ammonium nitrate, TNT, and military-grade C4, using both remote- and plate-detonation devices.
Since pledging bay`a, Wilayat Sinai fighters have received camouflage “Islamic State” uniforms and a number of new vehicles. That has not slowed its acquisition of materiel captured from the Egyptian military, police, and civilians in North Sinai. By the organization’s own count, it has stolen more than 50 vehicles in the past year and a significant amount of arms. The list of captured materiel includes two 25mm anti-aircraft guns with more than 650 rounds of ammunition, six RPGs (with more than 30 rounds), more than 50 AK47s, five DShK heavy machine guns, an unspecified number of sniper rifles, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Indifference to Local Interests
Wilayat Sinai’s decision to target Egypt’s tourism industry is a departure from its focus on attacking Egyptian security services. The attack on Metrojet Flight 9268 builds on the group’s self-declared economic war against the state and continues a year-long trend of rhetorically attacking the local interests of nations working against the Islamic State. The group’s initial statements defiantly refused to provide any evidence of its involvement in the attack, saying this would be revealed at a time of its choosing. Almost three weeks later, on November 18, a photo of the alleged IED appeared in the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq. The article claimed less than a kilogram of explosive material, hidden in a can of Schweppes Gold, “was smuggled onto the airplane.”
One day before Dabiq published its story, Russia’s Director of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov said, “We can say with confidence that this was a terrorist act.” Although the Egyptian government continues to deny it, this followed weeks of a building consensus among foreign intelligence officials and policymakers that Wilayat Sinai’s claim of involvement was likely true.
At this point, evidence suggests Wilayat Sinai used either at least one baggage handler at Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport to secrete the device in the Russian airplane’s hold, or someone with access to the cabin, perhaps a member of the catering crew, to place the bomb on board. This type of attack requires little sophistication compared to many of ABM’s and Wilayat Sinai’s previous strikes. As the Sinai expert Mohannad Sabry has noted, there is a vast amount of explosive material in Sinai.
These changes in Wilayat Sinai’s modus operandi have come even as the Egyptian military continues to pound its strongholds, reportedly killing more than 1,000 “terrorists” in Sinai this year. The problem, as identified by the Egyptian government, is that Wilayat Sinai is replacing these fighters with Egyptian returnees from Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and with other foreign fighters.
Egypt has failed to halt an infiltration of Sinai by non-Sinawi militants, who join the Islamic State group yet do not have the same tribal links, loyalties, and interests as existed among the ABM core. This change in the makeup and nature of Wilayat Sinai poses an immediate challenge to the local Sinai population and to international interests in Egypt—especially in Sinai. Over the course of 2015, the Sinai’s civilians have come under greater assault from Wilayat Sinai. ABM always presented itself as a defender of the Sinai population. Wilayat Sinai, on the other hand, claims to have killed more than 130 locals because of their alleged collaboration with the Egyptian government. Militants have also stepped up their harassment of the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO). The international troops, in Sinai for more than three decades monitoring Egyptian-Israeli peace, have long been a target of political demonstrations; but the direct threats the MFO faces today are unprecedented and growing.
An attack on a civilian airliner is the surest sign yet that the militant group’s focus is on serving an international agenda (that of the Islamic State) without regard for that agenda’s impact on the population within which it operates. It is possible Wilayat Sinai operatives thought this attack would please the Islamic State’s leaders and secure more funding and support, as well as an influx of Egyptian recruits. However, the attack led Russia to turn more of its firepower on the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold.
Did Wilayat Sinai Overreach?
All of the Islamic State propaganda regarding the Metrojet crash—the initial claim, another audio statement, and the Dabiq article—focus on Russian policies toward and military actions in Syria. Despite being carried out by Wilayat Sinai, and the negative implications for Egypt’s tourism sector, no effort was made to gain sympathy among Egyptians or to use the attack to recruit Egyptian youth that already have anti-government views. Had the Islamic State wanted to use the incident to recruit locally, it could have easily linked Russia to the perceived excesses of the Egyptian regime. There are close ties between Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, frequent government exchanges, and military sales. The decision to instead focus their propaganda on threats to the international community and those sympathetic to Syrian Sunnis makes it clear that the plotters—and the Islamic State’s media machine—cared little about the local impact.
If Egypt responds carefully, Wilayat Sinai’s decision to attack a civilian aircraft will go down as yet another example of the foreign-influenced group overplaying their hand. The attack was part of “economic warfare” against the Egyptian state, and in the immediate term it can be considered a success. But tourism provides the livelihood for a significant number of Egyptians. Attacks on tourists will boost pressure from Bedouin in South Sinai on their tribal brethren in the peninsula’s center and north. This would parallel the isolation of Egypt’s Islamic Group following its 1997 attack on tourists in Luxor and, more directly, the lack of sympathy among South Sinai tribes for the repercussions in North Sinai following the 2004 Taba bombings. Similarly, the increased threat to the MFO risks the economic interests of North Sinai’s Bedouin, because the international group is the largest employer in the governorate. This combination of factors could leave Wilayat Sinai isolated from the population, which will likely demand protection from Egyptian security forces.
The government can also point to pressure from the international community to justify increased military operations against Wilayat Sinai. Until recently, the primary vulnerability was seen as the MFO, but Wilayat Sinai’s targeting of tourists will likely spur both preemptive operations and—as Russia would demand—retribution. Foreign partners, including the U.S. and U.K. governments, may now be more willing to provide Egypt with intelligence support to confront and disrupt the group.
This combination of local demand and foreign support provides the Egyptian government with an opportunity to expand its operations against Wilayat Sinai in a strong but smart manner. Wilayat Sinai’s international threats may well make fantastic propaganda for the Islamic State, but targeting foreign tourists is likely to secure the jihadi group a great many more enemies with little to show except the gratitude of the Islamic State leaders.
Zack Gold is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. You can follow him @ZLGold
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 For more see Mokhtar Awad and Samuel Tadros, “Bay’a Remorse? Wilayat Sinai and the Nile Valley,” CTC Sentinel 8:8 (August 2015).
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 Al-Masri has some leadership responsibilities, including directing the group’s pledge to the Islamic State and sermonizing to its members. For more, see Nelly Lahoud, “The Province of Sinai: Why Bother with Palestine If You Can Be Part of the ‘Islamic State’?” CTC Sentinel 8:3 (March 2015).
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 Barbara Starr and Rene Marsh, “Egypt: U.S. can join investigation of Russian plane crash,” CNN, November 10, 2015. Additionally, as Awad and Tadros previously documented for CTC Sentinel, Sinai militants have previously succeeded in infiltrating secure facilities. For more see Mokhtar Awad and Samuel Tadros, “Bay’a Remorse? Wilayat Sinai and the Nile Valley,” CTC Sentinel 8:8 (August 2015).
 Zack Gold, “One Year of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula,” Institute for National Security Studies, October 25, 2015.
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 Zack Gold, “The Islamic State’s Pattern of Retaliation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula,” The Atlantic Council, November 12, 2015.
 Zack Gold, “Sinai Militancy and the Threat to International Forces,” Strategic Assessment 18:2 (July 2015): pp. 35–45.
 Don Melvin, “Russia bombards Raqqa, ISIS headquarters in Syria,” CNN, November 17, 2015; David Kirkpatrick, “ISIS Ally in Egypt Emerges as Key Suspect in Russian Jet Crash,” New York Times, November 9, 2015.